We talk about coffee processing a lot and for the most part coffee pros are interested in knowing whether coffee falls into one of three distinct categories — washed, semi-washed or natural.
While semi-washed and washed can be hard to discern depending on the coffee, naturals for the most part are pretty clear. They have big obvious fruit flavours which often fall somewhere into the jammy strawberry / blueberry character. Processing rarely has a scientific approach — it’s more a means of taking it from cherry to green bean ready for sale or export. Although it’s quite simple and straightforward, until you physically see it, it can be hard to visualise. I think this is mostly due to the fact that we don’t grow coffee, so the average person is not familiar with the tree or fruit. It would be like trying to describe a lemon without ever seeing one — you see pictures and know what they look like, but you couldn’t fully understand the smell, taste or texture.
Naturally processed coffees are nothing new. In fact, for most places they have been the default method of processing since forever! Because it requires so little infrastructure, it’s theoretically the simplest method of processing — if you are not worried about quality. So to this day, it is still almost always the method used for the “harvest leftovers.” As nothing is ever thrown out, the final dregs of coffee from the harvest are left in the skin until dry instead of using lots of water and effort to wash them. Most of this coffee is low quality to begin with as it’s the final pick and complete stripping of the tree. (Cherries are removed at any stage of ripeness.) Therefore it often over-ferments or rots (which is stinky!) If you can imagine off fruit sitting in the sun, you’ll get an idea of the smell. This kind of coffee is not exported, so don’t worry: you’ve probably never tasted it. Having access to a good water supply as well as the equipment required is not a given, and many of the smaller, less privileged farmers default to either the natural process for all their coffees or sell their cherries to local buyers at a low price and leave the processing to someone else.
I guess what I am trying to say is that “naturals” have long been associated with poor quality. Therefore most progressive farmers who taste even a hint of over-ferment in coffee will reject it as a processing defect. The bottom line is that the natural process can be compared in some ways to good backyard compost that should smell sweet as it breaks down and not rotten. This requires the right mixture, regular turning and attention to detail.
In recent years, progressive farmers have been considering how they can manipulate the final outcome of processing rather than just using it as a means to take off the layers of fruit and mucilage. While there are really only three types of processing (with lots of small variations), I imagine processing to be one of the areas that could potentially have some big breakthroughs and completely new ideas in the future. For now, we are seeing some high-end, naturally processed coffees from all over the world as farmers experiment with and recognise the demand for this type of processing.
With the right roast, the fresh aromas of the sweet naturals make them total crowd pleasers. In a time where the high end cafe is still trying to woo the average consumer into a “wow factor” coffee moment, I think that some of these naturals provide that opportunity. Most people still don’t understand that coffee comes from a fruit, so the fruit bomb flavours are un-expected and unmistakeable. These therefore become great coffees to introduce to new coffee drinkers.
The one dilemma I have as I travel around and taste coffee after coffee is that the naturally processed coffees all start to taste very similar. It becomes less about tasting the inherent flavours of the coffee and more about tasting the process. You can often taste coffees side by side (the washed version vs. the natural of the same variety and farm) and it’s only then that you really see what is lost to gain the fruity processing flavour. While naturals are trendy at the moment, I predict that it will become harder to find really exceptional ones, which we know is the only real way to go with naturally processed coffee.